YEAR C: SEASON OF PENTECOST
(Sunday between July 10 and July 16)
The book of Amos is included among the twelve minor prophets, called ‘minor’ not because their content is deemed less significant, but rather because they are shorter books than those of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. The twelve shorter books were collected into one scroll in ancient Judaism.
The book of Amos is a collection of oracles and a story associated with the prophet Amos. In this regard it is like most other prophetic books, both long and short. In their earliest form the oracles associated with the prophet were passed on orally and probably without any sense of order. It is only over the generations as the prophet’s words were seen to have relevance beyond their own time that the oral tradition was recorded, edited, and in many places added to. We should not presume that all the words associated with Amos were literally his words. Over time as these words were collected, and added to, the book itself developed and various editors gave it a ‘new’ shape so that it might speak more directly to their situations. How the prophet is portrayed within a book also developed and, again, we should not assume that the picture we get of a prophet within the book named after them is a close portrayal of the prophet himself.
According to the book given his name Amos was called from his life as a shepherd in Judah to speak a word from the Lord to the northern kingdom of Israel; to speak truth to power in that kingdom. We ought not to think of him as a humble young shepherd who followed the flocks over the hills. The word used to describe Amos as a ‘shepherd’ indicates that he was more likely a person of social standing who traded in sheep and goats and other agricultural products. Amos was called to speak to the powers of his day, a regime led by Jeroboam II, who was king of the Northern kingdom in the mid-700s BCE. It was a time of power and great prosperity, when the people of Israel assumed their privilege and affluence were evidence of God’s blessings to them as the chosen people. They had forgotten their suffering as slaves in Egypt. They were, at that time, free from the influence and harassment of neighbouring superpowers. But as a consequence, they neglected to share the fruits of their prosperity with the poor. Their religious observance was disconnected from their social ethics and bereft of social justice.
Amos is careful to distinguish himself from the official (and to his mind false) prophets of the day. He is instead a prophet in the true sense of the word, one entrusted with a word from the Lord. He is called to preach that word out of season, to give a word of judgment on those who believe themselves above reproach and condemnation. He calls Israel to the same standard of conduct that God asks of all the nations, to rely on God rather than military might, to unite their worship with concern and care for the poor, to let their faithfulness to God be reflected in their faithfulness in social relationships.
In the passage for this week, we have the third of five striking visions given to Amos, a prophetic word of judgment against the people of Israel and their rulers. The first two visions are of locusts and fire; then, in 7:7-9, judgment is expressed through the image of the “plumb line,” a bit of string with a weight used as a guide for measuring whether a wall has been built straight. The word ‘anak, translated “plumb line” is rare (a word occurring only once in scripture) and its precise meaning is uncertain. Scholars have suggested it may mean ‘tin’ (too light for use in plumb lines) or ‘lead’, or be related to the word for grief. The meaning of the prophet’s word of judgment, however, is all too clear. The northern kingdom of Israel is under God’s judgment for its apostasy.
In verse 7, Amos describes the vision shown him by the Lord. The Lord is standing with a plumb line, taking the measure of a wall that represents the people of Israel. As in the foregoing visions, Amos is asked what he sees, and relates the vision. Presumably, the Lord finds the wall is warped, no longer straight and true. He warns, “I will never again pass them (my people) by,” in a possible allusion to the Passover. No longer will they be spared, rather they will be judged severely. Three aspects of their society are singled out for destruction: first, the “high places” where other gods may have been worshipped; second, the sanctuaries where fit worship was not held; and third, the house of the king, Jeroboam, whose line will be destroyed by the sword.
In verse 10 and following, Amos spars with Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, who questions his motives and message, complaining about Amos’ dire messages against the king. Amos denies he is (or was; the tense of the Hebrew verb is indeterminate) part of a prophetic guild, whose members presumably earn their living through their prophecy. He is instead a herdsman and dresser of sycamore trees. Although he will not claim the name of prophet, he does claim the call of a prophet, as the Lord called him and gave him a message to speak. His was not a popular message, but his deep sense of being commissioned by God gave him strength in the face of any questions in relation to his call.
Being from the southern kingdom of Judah, Amos is commanded by Amaziah to return home and prophesy there. He is not welcome at Bethel, which is a sanctuary of the northern king, Jereboam. This does not deter Amos, who announces judgment against the corrupt Jeroboam and the members of the priestly caste who have capitulated to the powers they serve. He spells out a dire vision for the future, including the queen becoming a prostitute, the royal children dying by the sword, and the people of Israel being taken into exile; somewhat formulaic visions which portray condemnation in the most dramatic terms.
Amos’ strength of conviction that his message is given by God invites the reader to reflect on the hard edge of the prophetic word. The similarities of context between the social injustices of Amos’ day and our own make an uncomfortable link between the judgment Amos foresaw for his people and the implications of the prophetic word for our day.
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